Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Most Amazing Day in Sports

I'm generally against these retro diary posts as they seem to be an all too common conceit, a way of making your recap interesting on the surface without really adding anything to it through the style. But with all ten Premier League matches being played at the same time on the final day of the season, there really is no better way to capture the tension and the drama because almost all of it was dependent upon what was happening in other matches that were unfolding at the same time. So, I bring to you my Sunday (or at least the parts of it I wish to recount) AKA The Premiership's Final Day AKA Survivor Sunday AKA The Craziest Day in Sports I Have Ever Witnessed.

I arrived at Phoenix Landing in Cambridge, MA right at the stroke of ten due a slightly late bus schedule, but anxious to get started on the matches. Phoenix Landing is a bar in Central Square known as a soccer bar, a place which will be open early in the morning for anyone who needs somewhere to watch the games. It is primarily a Liverpool bar, but shows many other games when possible which is great for those of us who don't have FOX Soccer Plus, Setanta, GolTV, Sky Sports, and all of the extra channels on which games can hide. All of this, however, I had discovered on my one previous visit to the bar which was when a staging area was needed before a concert. Therefore I was not sure entirely what to expect when I came up to what looked like a locked door right as the matches were about to start. With panic welling up inside me, I pulled just a bit too hard on an open door and walked into what could have been a nighttime bar anywhere else in the soccer loving world. The windows were all closed, blinds tightened, lights turned low so that you had to struggle just a bit to identify things through the gloam. Inside were roughly one hundred people of all affiliations: 20 or so Manchester United fans sitting around a projection screen; around 15 Arsenal fans standing in front of the bar watching the television behind it; a patch of Manchester City fans camped out in front of the television opposite the bar; dozens of Liverpool fans there to enjoy... god, I don't know what; and plenty of other people I couldn't make out from near the entrance. I sidled up to some other Arsenal fans one row behind the seats at the bar and almost immediately the man in front of me left his seat (presumably due to the taps slightly blocking the view of the TV as I saw him elsewhere in the bar later) and offered it to those standing behind him. I deferred to the people that had been there before me but when all declined, I happily took a seat at the bar, where I would remain for the better part of the next four hours.

Almost immediately a roar burst through the room, a roar I was a part of, as Yossi Benayoun took advantage of a horrible goal keeping blunder by West Bromwich Albion's Marton Fulop in the third minute and tapped the ball into the back of the net. I assume this is the kind of mistake keepers see in their dreams before matches, the post-adolescent netminder version of standing naked in front of your class. Fulop came to the end of his box to play the ball but realized that he had come all the way out of said box, keeping him from picking up the incoming ball. Rather than doing the natural thing at that point (blasting the holy hell out of the ball and conceding a throw-in at worst), Fulop tried to let the ball run into the penalty area and then dive on it. However Benayoun was way too quick for him, nicking the ball from under his arms and then side footing in for the opening goal. The crowd was jubilant but the abused spouse side of us came through almost immediately. Benayoun had scored similarly in Arsenal's last match against Norwich City, a game Arsenal had eventually lost 3-2, keeping the Gunners from clinching third place and a Champions League spot for next year. Hopefully history would not repeat itself.

Well fuck, maybe it would after all. Once all the Arsenal supporters settled down from the Benayoun goal, we were treated to highlights of Tottenham scoring against Fulham a minute prior. The culprit? Emmanuel Adebayor. Of course it was Adebayor. With both teams up 1-0, Arsenal was still safely in third with Spurs trailing in fourth, but it was a downer of a moment that felt like heavy handed foreshadowing more than anything. Inside of 15 minutes, those feelings were proven correct as West Brom scored two goals to take the lead 2-1 over Arsenal. In a bit of Balotelli "why always me" style for Gunners supporters, the first goal was scored by Shane Long (with a very nice finish, by the way), who received the ball in an offside position. The second goal came off of Graham Dorrans popping the ball up to himself and then finishing with a very nice volley to beat Wojiech Szczesny inside the left post. Now, let's be clear. Despite the offsides for the first goal and the impressive skill of the second, Arsenal was badly beaten defensively twice when they had the game in the palm of their hand. First with Thomas Vermaelen traveling too far up the field yet again when he doesn't need to, then by awkward positional defending off a simple pass and a pop-up. Arsenal can play very well defensively at times but have this habit of fumbling away the momentum when they absolutely should not, and it's something that needs to change for next season. We fans in red and white got a bit of good news shortly after the second West Brom goal when the televisions showed Everton going ahead of Newcastle on a Steven Pienaar goal, meaning Arsenal was still in fourth rather than tumbling all the way to fifth and out of the Champions League. But with our arch rivals ahead of us and fourth place not being exactly a sure Champions League spot, this was a gloomy time in an otherwise happily gloomy bar.

It was about at this point in the day that the other races started getting interesting. Bolton needed a win and a Queens Park Rangers loss to stay out of the final relegation spot, but Stoke City put a goal in against them early in the first half, causing everyone around me to shake their heads in mourning for Bolton. Stoke is a notoriously difficult place to play (as I have mentioned before) and also a difficult team to score on. Bolton pulling two goals back and remaining ahead for the rest of the game seemed quite unlikely. All of this discussion was quickly forgotten, however, when Wayne Rooney got on the end of a very nice cross from Phil Jones and headed home to put Man U up 1-0. This was huge as United and City were tied on points going into the day and Rooney's goal meant that City needed one as well in order to keep up. A likely event considering City's home form, QPR's away form, and the general disparity in talent, but you never know.

Now would be a good time to discuss the best part of being at this bar: the fans reacted to everything and there were multiple reactions to each event. For example, a team would score and the fans of the team would absolutely freak out, drawing everyone's attention to their screen. Then the replay would come on and all the other fans would react to the thing they knew had happened but hadn't seen, while the fans of the scoring team would do mini-celebrations and prayers upon seeing their own replay. Then one or more channels would do a split screen shot showing the highlight of the goal that everyone had just seen, but still reacted to at some minor level. So Arsenal fans would groan in disgust at a West Brom goal, then groan again and harp on some players fault while the (mercifully) few Spurs fans would do mini fist pumps and all the other fans would tsk tsk at the sloppy defending. Or, the Manchester United fans would be jumping around, drawing the eye of everyone including the City fans who absolutely dreaded what the television would confirm, then cursed aloud when the replay was shown, then would shout things like "get that trash off the screen" when their own channel would break in to alert them to the highlight. It made for so many smaller moments among the larger ones that added that much more excitement/disappointment/loathing to the day as a whole.

After City and United fans traded oaths and epithets with each other and things began to calm down... they sped right up again. First Andre Santos pulled a goal back for Arsenal on a typical Andre Santos run. He looked lost, perhaps a bit out of shape, then he got the ball, burned by a couple of defenders and unleashed a shot that beat Fulop near post. I just don't understand it. The Tuesday Club members have taken to saying Santos should be forced to wear a chef's hat whenever he's on the field to alert everyone to his love of food. Even without the hyperbole, he always looks awkward when he's gearing up for the attack, like someone who gets together with his friends to play once a week even though his glory days are behind him. But when he gets the ball, he is a completely different person, taking on defenders, whipping in crosses, bursting in from the left to wreck havoc in the middle of the field. He is awful as an on the ball defender and fails to track back well, but he is a real asset from a surprising part of the side's structure when his marauding is needed. I feel uncomfortable with him as the first choice left back (unless he greatly improves his fitness) but I must say that I do like having him as an option. During our celebration, the slightly delayed news came through that Nikica Jelavic had scored for Everton, putting them up 2-0 and seemingly giving Arsenal a stranglehold on fourth place, if not better.

The real drama (and honestly, this was the focal point of the day even if you were a fan of a team about to be relegated or competing for Champions League spots) took another turn in the 39th minute at Ethiad Stadium when Pablo Zabaleta blasted through and put Man City up 1-0 over QPR. This goal put the Manchester teams back on level terms, but since City's goal differential (the tiebreaker) was insurmountable, both teams winning meant United was losing. To make things even crazier, Bolton scored two goals at Stoke to go up 2-1 before the half. Also, Chelsea scored somewhere in here. No one cared. If you're keeping count at home, that means:

Manchester City 1-0 Queens Park Rangers
Manchester United 1-0 Sunderland
Arsenal 2-2 West Bromwich Albion
Tottenham 1-0 Fulham
Newcastle 0-2 Everton
Bolton 2-1 Stoke City
Chelsea 1(?)-? Who Cares

If those results held, it meant that City were the champions, Tottenham finished above Arsenal (3rd and 4th respectively), Newcastle ended their magical season heartbreakingly close to Champions League play but still outside of it, Bolton stayed up in the Premier League while QPR was relegated, and it was still hilarious that no one cared about Chelsea. All of this is high drama anyway, but there was just so much more in store.

The first magic moment of the second half was a stunner. QPR striker Djibril Cisse pounced on a Joleon Lescott errant header and sent it into the back of the net, turning everything upside down once again. United fans were manic, City fans were distraught, and no one could believe that QPR was coming back from behind at Manchester City. Of course one good turn deserves another and QPR's Joey Barton was sent off for elbowing Carlos Tevez and then cheap-shotting Sergio Aguero, which almost sparked a brawl on the field in an attempt to ruin everything. Thankfully no one got involved like that and it was City's time to be up while United were down. The proceedings took on an air of inevitability at this point. Of course City would notch a goal against 10 man QPR, it was bound to happen. But then again things flipped when Jamie Mackie got on the end of an Armand Traore cross and put a diving header past Joe Hart and into the back of the net, and suddenly City's deficit was two goals in order to come back and win. The craziest part was this all happened in about a 15 minute span and none of it died away after it happened. People kept discussing it, kept seeing replays, and it simmered throughout, building and building in intensity. It captured everyone's attention and led to that age old cliche of thinking "what will happen next?"

In all honesty, even as an Arsenal fan, the Manchester drama took over at this point. Before QPR went ahead on Mackie's goal, Laurent Koscielny took advantage of another comical Fulop error, this time a mishit punch off a corner kick, to put Arsenal up 3-2 and in control of their Champions League destiny. We celebrated heartily, slapping hands and raising glasses. Of course we did. And we sat or stood nervously for 35+ minutes, waiting for Arsenal to let us down again. Tottenham secured their lead against Fulham, but Arsenal's collapse never came and the two London sides finished third and fourth with Arsenal securing yet another Champions League birth. And we cared about this, heartily and truly. We most assuredly did. But even the primary fandom of the people at the bar was muffled to a degree and the other "neutral" storylines was moved to the back burner, noticed but not exactly celebrated. Everton guaranteed finishing above Liverpool for the season. Oh that's nice, good for them, they earned it. Stoke came back to tie with Bolton. That's a shame, the Wanderers were ruined by injuries, probably don't deserve to go down. Swansea scored on Liverpool to cap off a highly disappointing season for the Reds. Haha, that's kind of funny in a mid-table way. All was observed, all was commented upon, but there was one true focus for almost everyone in the room.

In the 80th minute, United fans started to pry their worried eyes away from their television and steal glances at City's. Around the 85th they began to sing every song from "We Love United" to pretty much anything that mentioned City directly, and not in a "good effort, you tried your best" kind of way. By the 90th the place was roaring with song and disbelief, aside from the secluded City fans who couldn't believe what was happening. Then, a goal. Edin Dzeko leapt high and uncontested off a corner to drive home the equalizer and City were shown some life. But even as the roars from City fans died down and the neutrals muttered that cliche yet again shaking their heads, the songs from the United corner came "you still need one more," underlining the fact that City hadn't done anything yet.

But then they did. Aguero broke free off a return pass from Mario Balotelli (of all people), took an extra step to move clear of the diving defender, and drove home the second City goal of the second half, the second goal in overtime, and City were about to be champions. United fans were absolutely shell-shocked, in total disbelief. The Liverpool fans were almost louder than the City fans because, well, any chance to celebrate in United's defeat. And while the excited conversations started to die down, while the fans did their extra fist pumps at the inevitable replay from five different angles, you heard the rise of the one, the only, "Who the Fuck is Manchester United?"

I can't describe the rest of the day to you. I mean, I can, but it won't do it justice. It was the little things that happened that I can't properly recreate so that you feel like you were there. The Arsenal fan with his arm around his United friend's shoulder saying "I'm telling you man, you never sing early." The City fan who sat with the United crowd all day because his wife was a United fan, taking all the abuse from everyone in the area and smiling through it all. The Arsenal fans shaking hands and lifting glasses to a belated St. Totteringham's Day. The conversation I had with my Mom shortly after the matches all ended, a couple Guinness deep and still emotionally reeling from such a fantastic day of soccer. I know that we tend to over inflate the recent at the expense of the past. I know that and I've been comparing this day to my personal favorites in sports over the years: Kirby Puckett robbing Ron Gant against the Metrodome plexiglass before hitting a walk off home run to send the 1991 World Series to a Game 7; the Giants stopping the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and then again in the revenge game; the Penguins overcoming the Red Wings for their own revenge; the see-saw heartbreaking nature of the Twins vs Tigers one game playoff; the Landon Donovan goal that sent the USA through to the elimination round in injury time of their last match of the group stage. All of those memories are incredibly special to me because they involved my teams and they will always hold the most treasured places in my heart, or at least in the section devoted to sports. But after much reflection and genuine thought, I can honestly say that immediacy be damned, the past Sunday was the most insane, nerve-wracking, batshit crazy, and amazing complete day of sports I have ever experienced in my life. For all the meanings and the outcomes, for all the little dramas and the huge one that overpowered us all. It wasn't just one game or one story, it was every moment coming together to make it the unique and extraordinary day that it was. I just hope everyone out there got to taste at least a piece of that themselves. Cheers to you all and thank you for a great Premier League season.

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